Disclaimer: See previous chapters.
Author Note: I know it took a while but here's the next chapter. I hope I did a good job, I did a lot of rewriting with this one. As always, reviews are much appreciated.
Their search for tea led them to a small café near the park, one of the few businesses located above ground. It was mostly empty, the only other people there being a bored looking waitress, two teenagers drinking coffee out of extra-large mugs, and a tall, powerfully built man with short red hair. All of them looked up when the rather mismatched trio entered the café; an acknowledging nod from the waitress, a brief glance from the man before he went back to eating his sandwich, and a longer, more calculating look from the teenagers, violet eyes sizing them up before deciding that they weren’t anything to worry about. Enzo and Leo did their own unconscious assessment of the other customers.
Jem on the other hand was starting to notice a pattern. At the hospital, something similar occurred; every time a door opened or someone entered a room, everyone looked up to see who it was. Loud noises and sudden, unexpected movements caused people to tense up slightly and look around warily. And then there was the incident a couple of days ago when a woman had gone running past his room while Enzo had been visiting. Even in his post-historical trauma related fug, Jem hadn’t missed Enzo’s hand slipping behind his back, obviously reaching for his knife, or the fact that Daisuke had dropped his magazine and straightened up, fists clenched. Both had relaxed a moment later but Jem was sure he hadn’t imagined it. Never the less, he didn’t dwell on it, the same way that he didn’t dwell on the fact that everyone, including schoolboys and doctors, was armed at all times. If he did he’d only end up wondering just how bad it was out there and thoughts like that could easily lead to him cowering on his bed again.
Picking a table well away from everyone else, Jem sat down with a sigh. Truth be told, he needed a rest as much as the cup of tea, his legs were getting better but they still objected to him walking any kind of distance.
Surprisingly, Leo volunteered to fetch their orders. Enzo soon realised the reason though. The waitress may have looked bored out of her skull but she also ranked a definite eight on the hotness meter and looked like she was maybe a year or two older than them. He gave Leo a knowing look.
“Don’t spend forever flirting.”
The Libre-Arrancar fanboy just grinned a bit wider than usual before heading towards the counter.
Jem meanwhile kept looking at the red headed guy with the sandwich. He was sure that he’d never seen him before, yet he seemed oddly familiar, something which niggled away at him.
He was roused from his thoughts by Leo returning with a tray. Enzo seemed surprised.
“That was quick.”
“She has a boyfriend.”
Jem looked at the contents of the tray. In addition to his pot of tea and the associated accoutrements there was an oddly shaped fried bready-thing with a crispy coating that smelt faintly of curry, a bottle of some sort of soft drink- he didn’t recognize the brand- and a mug of milky coffee. The soft drink and fried thing turned out to be Leo’s, while the coffee was claimed by Enzo who proceeded to add a ridiculous amount of sugar. Wondering how on Earth Enzo still had his teeth, Jem turned his attention to sorting out his tea. Compared to Enzo’s syrupification of his coffee, the two sugars he added to his cup seemed positively restrained.
Sipping at his tea thoughtfully, his attention was drawn back to the red headed man. He definitely knew him from somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where. It was starting to get annoying.
While he was pondering this mystery, a short haired young woman came into the café. There was the same bit of checking out as when they’d come in and it seemed that she knew the mystery redhead because she made a bee line towards him. Jem was too far away and too polite to listen in on their conversation properly, but the occasional word or sentence drifted over. It was when one of them included the word ‘dwarf’ that the penny finally dropped. Jem promptly choked on his tea, drawing attention from pretty much everyone in the room. Leo ‘helpfully’ thumped him on the back, which just made his spluttering worse and almost knocked him into the table. A minute or so later, he’d finally managed to regain some semblance of dignity and people had stopped staring. Enzo gave him a concerned look.
“Yeah, just had a bit of a surprise. You don’t expect to see a character out of one of your favourite book series sitting in the same café as you.”
The boys, for whom the opposite applied, just shrugged and went back to their refreshments, Enzo adding yet another sugar to his coffee while Leo polished off what had turned out to be something best described as a curry donut. Once upon a time Jem would’ve raised an eyebrow at their respective eating habits but after everything else he barley even noticed.
After finishing their drinks, they went back to the park. Thankfully the Oompa Loompas were nowhere in sight.
“So, where do you want to go next?
Leo offered a suggestion.
“Why don’t we take him to the training grounds? We could hang out the viewing areas.”
Enzo shot him a look.
“I think that might be a bit much don’t you?”
As Jem mused over what he wanted to do, they were interrupted by a young woman who was dragging along a guy who was gagged and tied up with so much rope that it was hard to see what he was wearing. The woman dragging him carried a very large gun and seemed far too perky for someone who was holding someone captive. She smiled brightly at the trio.
“Excuse me, can you help me? I need to find the police station.”
“I’m not sure but I think it’s on Shepherd Street,” replied Enzo, pointing towards the nearest set of gateways. “Go over there and go through the doorway marked East Turnstile and follow the signs until you get to Shepherd Street. I’m not that familiar with that part of town though so I can’t be any more precise then that. I hope it helps.”
“It does, thanks.”
With that she trooped off, protesting captive in tow. After she was gone, Jem stopped gawping and voiced what was on his mind.
“What the hell was going on there?”
“Bounty hunter, probably.”
“A bounty hunter? As in ‘wanted: dead or alive?”
Enzo gave him a level look.
“Don’t sound like that, it’s a decent occupation. Gets a lot more respect then rooting around for scrap for one thing. We were thinking of having a shot at it when we finished school, if the forces don’t want us anyway.”
Jem gave him a horrified look. Enzo was quick to set his facts straight.
“Look, neither of us have any special talents. I’m really, really good at finding things and we’re not too bad in a fight but we’re both practically normals and neither of us is doing all that well in school. Our options are pretty limited. Bounty hunting isn’t easy but there’s always plenty of work in the bingo book and if you manage to bag a couple of big bounty heads and keep the property damage to a minimum you can make a lot of money very quickly, not to mention netting a whole load of badass points.”
Jem was still unconvinced but decided to leave it at that. The last thing he wanted was to piss off the nearest thing he had to a friend. Wanting to avoid an argument, he changed the subject.
“I don’t really have anything I want to do. After all, I don’t know what there is, so maybe you could suggest something.”
“Training grounds,” said Leo repeating his previous suggestion. “You’ve got to leave the shallow end sooner or later; you may as well get it over with.”
Enzo gave him a look which translated as ‘you’re an idiot’. Much to the surprise of everyone, especially himself, Jem agreed.
“Okay. I’ve got to face my fears after all. Besides, how bad can it be?”
Fifteen minutes later he was kicking himself. The viewing areas were located a few stories up and over looked two of the training grounds, one on each side. Angled walls made of what he guessed/hoped was some sort of bulletproof glass provided a good view of what was going on below, although Jem personally wished that they didn’t. On the other hand, he was finding it impossible to look away. The fight below out did any kung fu film he’d ever seen, the combatants frequently seeming to violate the laws of physics, starting with them easily wielding swords that were bigger than they were. It was absolutely awe inspiring but at the same time he couldn’t help but be aware of three things. The first was that the fighters didn’t seem to be trying to avoid hurting each other; swords had met flesh more than once and both of them had blood staining their clothes. The second was the fact that neither of the fighters looked any older then the two boys sitting next to him, in fact one looked like he might be a year or two younger, and the third was that his companions seemed to regard it as normal. They looked like they were watching a football match or something, Enzo sitting quietly and watching with interest, while Leo was considerably more enthusiastic, leaning over for a better view and keeping a running commentary going.
“Ooo, nice one, I’ll have to give that move a go sometime. That arsehole Taiki won’t know what hit him. ”
Enzo reached over and gave him a light whack on the back of the head.
“Don’t be an idiot.”
Leo glared, then resumed his commentary.
“Ouch, that must’ve hurt. He should really have been able to dodge that one.”
Jem grimaced. How the younger fighter hadn’t been killed by that particular blow was nothing short of a miracle, the fact that he was still on his feet had to be violating the laws of reality. Enzo noticed his discomfort.
“More or less. When you said they were training, I wouldn’t have thought that they’d be going all out.”
Enzo looked at the fight down below.
“I don’t think they are.”
He was silent for a moment.
“They’re just kids. Why do they have to do this to themselves?”
“Why not? They’re probably having fun and they’re obviously good at what they do. Besides, there’s a war going on. The more fighters we have the better, particularly if they’ve already got a lot of training in. Don’t worry; they’re not going to do themselves any major damage, maybe a broken bone or two, no biggie.”
Jem looked horrified, both by Enzo’s blasé attitude to the violence going on below and the violence itself. Leo’s very vocal enthusiasm for it just made it worse.
The older fighter knocked the younger off his feet and held his sword to his throat before pulling it away. The fight apparently over, he helped the loser to his feet and clapped him on the shoulder before they both left the training area. Shortly after they left four others walked on. The new arrivals looked even younger; one couldn’t be more then twelve. Jem felt slightly sick and decided he’d had enough. He got to his feet.
“I think I’ve had enough excitement for one day. Time for me to go back to the hospital.”
Enzo stood up.
“I’ll come with you. We don’t want you getting lost now do we?”
Leo elected to stay put and watch the next fight. Enzo and Jem didn’t say anything until they left the building, then Jem decided to voice what was on his mind. What he’d just seen, plus a few things he’d heard in passing, gave him a very bad feeling.”
“What’s the minimum age for military service?”
“For military service? It’s sixteen, when you become a legal adult.”
Jem thought about it for a moment.
“It used to be eighteen.”
“Oh believe me, I know.”
Quite wisely, Enzo decided against mentioning that sixteen was just the minimum age for the normal state military and that for groups like ninjas and the various non-humans it could be as young as ten, or even younger in some cases. Given Jem’s behaviour, he had a feeling he’d react badly. Sighing, he decided to make an attempt at damage control.
“Look, I know that it looked like they were beating the crap out of each other, but they’re both a lot more durable then you are. I used to go to be in the same class as the older guy, he’s half demon of something like that. You could probably throw him through a wall and he’d be fine. I don’t know the younger guy but by the look of him I’d say he’d has something other than human in him too so he’s probably just as tough. Besides, these days they can fix pretty much anything that isn’t life threatening in minutes. A broken arm isn’t much worse than a cut finger. It’s all relative.”
Once again, Jem looked unconvinced. Enzo sighed.
“Okay, I know that so far we seem like a world of fight crazy nutcases, and admittedly some of us are, I am friends with Leo after all, but that’s not the be all and end all. It just seems that way because there were so many people who dressed up as badasses on Halloween and we’ve been on a war footing for longer then I’ve been alive, but we’ve managed to take out three of the top bad guys, in fact we took out the third the same day I found you, so with a bit of luck things will be settling down soon. In a way, you got lucky; you managed to sleep though the worst of it.”
“I don’t feel very lucky.”
“I guessed. Fact is though, this is the way the world is now so you’ve got to get used to it and trust me, it’s not actually that bad. Life goes on, people have jobs, raise families, kids go to school, my dad complains about the price of scrap metal. If you can’t handle the big stuff, focus on the small stuff. What?”
Jem was giving him a very strange look.
“I thought you said you weren’t doing well in school. You seem pretty smart to me.”
“I suppose I am. I’m just book dumb, well in most subjects anyway. Some of us just don’t belong in the classroom. Anyway, remember, the whole point of this little outing was to make it look like your adapting so no one starts messing with your head, so try not to look so bloody miserable.”
Jem gave him a dirty look but didn’t say anything.
They got back to his room without incident. As it turned out, there were at least two good things that had come of today’s adventure; the exercise had given him an appetite and, since his muscle tone was still practically non-existent, had worn him out. So, for the first time in a while he ate all off his dinner without having to force himself, and managed to get his first full night’s sleep since he’d woken up in the new world.
The next day was the moment of truth; he had an appointment with Mr Creepy. After the usual pleasantries, the shrink gave him an assessing look.
“So I hear you’ve taken a trip outside. How did it go?”
“It was okay. Different and a bit scary but okay. I just need a bit of time to get used to it, it’s a bit of a culture shock after all but the more I see the faster I’ll get used to it.”
Mr Creepy raised an eyebrow.
“Really? That’s quite a change to last time I saw you.”
“Yeah, well I had a think about it and I realised that I this is the way the world is and I’d just have to get used to it. After all I can’t stay here forever or I’ll go nuts. I’ve just got to try and get on with my life, no matter how scary it is out there.”
There followed half an hour of psychobabble questioning from Mr Creepy which Jem did his best to answer correctly, before the bane of his existence, well one of them anyway finally left. Jem just hoped he’d fallen for it. He frowned. How would he know if he had?
Flopping back on his bed he crossed his fingers.
‘Whoever’s up there,’ he thought. ‘Please let me get out of this with my memory intact.”